Heart Health: Conquering the #1 Killer with Larry King

Last Editorial Review: 9/3/2004

By Larry King
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Larry King is usually found asking questions on his CNN talk show, but for this special WebMD Live Event he supplied the answers instead. "I did everything wrong," King says about his lifestyle before his 1987 heart attack and bypass surgery. He joined us to discuss how he learned to do everything right to have a healthy heart.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Hello, Larry. Welcome to WebMD Live. How is your heart today?

King: Thank you and my heart feels fine. It has for some time.

Moderator: You have said that prior to your 1987 heart attack you did everything wrong. What were you doing wrong?

King: I didn't do anything right. I smoked sometimes up to three packs per day, ate all the wrong foods, and never exercised. I overlooked occasional chest pain, tossing it up to heartburn. Even though my father had died of a heart attack at age 43, I still thought I was perfect, and it would never happen to me. Subsequently, when I had my heart attack on Feb. 24, 1987, I stopped smoking immediately, that day, and attempted to change the other habits as well. It was then decided in November of 1987 that I needed bypass surgery, which was conducted in New York on December 1. Ever since then I have changed everything about my life -- except the Type A personality, which I cannot seem to change. Traffic jams still annoy me. Other than that, I watch what I eat, exercise every day, got major league involved and formed the Larry King Cardiac Foundation which helps those who cannot afford heart procedures to have them done free. I needed angioplasty in one of the veins 10 years later, in 1997, and that has held through the present. The surgery, by the way, was a quintuple bypass.

Moderator: How could someone as intelligent as you, with the whole world of information at your fingertips, ignore all of the messages about cigarette smoking and your heart?

King: Now that I have stopped smoking it's easy to look back and wonder why I ever smoked in the first place. If I could have one day back in my life it would be the day I started smoking. However, when I did start it was not considered a health danger. But that's no excuse because I continued to smoke after the Surgeon General's initial report about its dangers. I also felt terrible when I found out in my case it was easy to stop. I was sufficiently frightened. The encouraging part that I tell anyone who does smoke, is you can stop. If I could stop, anyone can stop.

But smart people often do dumb things.

Member: Larry, do your doctors tell you that your heart is getting stronger now that you're living healthily, or did it just stop getting worse? I'm trying to understand if the heart is like the lungs after you quit smoking, in that eventually it gets to where there's no trace of the damage you were doing to it.

King: That's a good question. I don't think there is evidence that the heart gets stronger. Some think heart disease is reversible. My doctors are not sure. I take a lot of medication, including Lipitor, the wonder drug. My cholesterol is somewhere around 160 total. So obviously, if I follow the doctor's orders and take good care of myself, it should not get worse. For instance I don't have any pain. I feel good. I don't get short of breath. However, in my mind I have heart disease.

Member: I know you take cholesterol medications, so do you still have to watch your diet?

King: I do. Some people so embrace the cholesterol medication that they eat anything they wish. I was too frightened. Occasionally of course I will have that slice of pizza or a piece of steak. But that's only occasional. Dinner used to be one of the most important parts of my day. Now it is just something I do.

Member: Do you miss the greasy food and the cigs?

King: I don't miss the cigarettes. I miss certain foods like liver with fried onions, lemon meringue pie, baked stuffed potatoes, and Caesar salads. However, that's a small price to pay for being healthy.

Member: How hard was it for you to give up smoking?

King: I did it cold turkey the day I had my heart attack and have honestly never wanted one since. I know that people tell me how hard it is, so my opinion is that I was scared straight. Having a heart attack changed my life.

Member: Tell us about the Larry King Cardiac Foundation. How are recipients of your grants chosen? Can you tell us about some of them?

King: A little history: The Larry King Cardiac Foundation started when someone asked me what my surgery cost. I didn't know because insurance paid all of it. I got to thinking about people who are not covered by insurance or who cannot afford this. So we started a foundation wherein I would give royalties from book sales and speeches, and we would also hold dinners in Los Angeles and Washington with top entertainers donating their time, with money going to the Foundation.

We deal with various hospitals around the U.S. Doctors contact us with stories about patients. And very often patients contact us directly at the Foundation. Those main offices are in Los Angeles. If anyone wants further information call 703-522-0703 and ask for Miss Roth. We have a web site, which is www.lkcf.org. We are always looking to help others. We have helped children as young as 2 years old, adults as old as 65. We have gotten transplants, bypass surgeries, medication, angioplasty, and various other procedures. In 10 years we have helped almost 100 people. Remember this is very expensive stuff, but the Foundation is growing all the time. And I am glad to report everyone we have helped to this minute is still alive.

Moderator: That's wonderful! How much has the foundation raised so far?

King: I don't have the total. Probably the web site has that. In the last four years we have raised over $2 million per year.

Member: What kind of exercise program do you follow? Is walking enough?

King: I am a walking freak. I do about 2 miles every morning on the treadmill in a half hour. I also do a lot of extra walking whenever I can. I probably walk a total of 4 miles briskly a day. I do a little weight lifting. I do a couple of minutes with an ab-dolly, and a couple of minutes on a stationary bike. But the walking aspect is No. 1 to me. I also have regular checkups, take a stress test once per year, and I monitor my weight, always fluctuating between 162 and 166 pounds. I am 6 feet tall, even. The most I've ever weighed was about 190, and that would have been around the time of the heart attack.

Moderator: You've talked about your father having a heart attack. What advice do you have for people regarding their family history of heart disease?

King: When I had my heart attack, the first thing they asked me at George Washington University Hospital is "Is your father living?" The second question was "What did he die of and at what age?" All of my studies have shown that genes are the No. 1 factor in heart disease, but having outlived my father now by 25 years, I have shown that if you do take care of yourself, you can live with the gene factor. My brother who is 65 has had heart surgery as well and angioplasty, but did not suffer a heart attack. My children have their cholesterol checked regularly. These are my grown children. I also have two young boys, ages 3 and 2. And doctors say check their cholesterol very soon and get them into proper eating habits very early.

Member: How often do you go for regular checkups?

King: I go once per year for a total checkup of everything, including cancer scan, heart scan, stress test, PSA -- all that entails a full physical. I spend the better part of a full day at the hospital to do this.

Member: Now that you're "clean," are you on a mission to get people to stop smoking and eating junk every day? And do you have any advice for how to approach a family member whose health you are worried about because of too much smoking? I don't want to throw stats at this person, but I want to express my concern. Can I just tell them Larry King told me to tell you to stop?

King: If that helps, do that. I don't have a mission, as such. But I do say this: Let's face it, everyone knows smoking is dangerous. That is a given. What I tell you is you can stop. I had to be scared to stop. My suggestion about telling family members is scare them. Without giving a statistic, just tell them the following fact: If everyone in America stopped smoking tomorrow, 45% of all hospital beds would be empty within three years. One of those beds could have been yours.

Moderator: Larry, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

King: I was happy to do this web talk today and would like to on a regular basis. If we can help one person, that's a major start. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer, and anything we can do to reduce those figures is a plus. The heart is an amazing organ. No one has ever been able to duplicate one. And you only have one. It seems to me a logically good idea to take the best care of it that you can. And I would like to do these talks on a regular basis.

Moderator: We are out of time. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of your great questions. Our thanks to Larry King, and thank you, members, for joining us today. You can see Larry on his CNN talk show, Larry King Live. Find out more about The Larry King Cardiac Foundation at www.lkcf.org. Please check out our news stories, features, and archived interviews with experts for more information about heart health. And visit our heart disease message board to talk with other members.

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